Sunday, 15 March 2015

5 things we learned from Lazio-Napoli

Napoli rebounded from last weekend’s defeat to Juventus by defeating Lazio 1-0 to go third in the table, one spot ahead of their rivals in the capital in the race for the Champions League.
Rafael Benitez’s side arrived in Rome intent on shutting their opponents down and Gonzalo Higuian’s acute finish in the first half was all they needed.

So as Napoli move forward, and Lazio remain weighed down by injuries, let’s look at what we learned from today’s action.

Higuian still loves playing The Eagles
By scoring his side’s winner, netting for the tenth time in Serie A this season, Higuian made it seven goals in his last four appearances against Lazio. You might think he raises his game against the Romans then, but to tell the truth, he’s been this good all season and now becomes the fourth player to score at least ten Serie A goals this term. His finish, a venomous drive at the near post after holding the ball up alone, was the mark of a striker in form.

Napoli grind it out without exerting themselves
Indeed, the solitary nature of Higuian’s goal epitomised Napoli’s performance – quick-thinking, industrious and economical. While the hosts wasted their chances in front of goal Napoli came off on top by making better use of the ball on the counter-attack - not from starting out with any sense of attacking panache or reckless ambition. Their pace on the break was frightening, and Higuian, Jonathan de Guzman and Jose Callejon all exploited space in the final third. 

Naples men can look ahead to European qualification
Although Napoli missed out on reaching the Champions League last season, dropping out in the play-offs to Athletic Bilbao, the Blues look assured of at least a preliminary spot again this time around. They move to third above Lazio and the nature of their battling, with Marek Hamsik benched until past the hour, shows they can grind out results on the road – a habit they will need in Europe. That’s without mentioning the experienced signing from Dnipro, Ivan Strinic, who kept Antonio Candreva quiet and impressed on his debut at full-back.

Crowded treatment room at Lazio is taking its toll
It’s not so rosy at the Stadio Olimpico however. Having thrown away a two-goal lead  to draw 2-2 in the Rome derby last weekend, Lazio entered this defeat with a threadbare squad once more. Standouts at both ends of the pitch such as Stefan de Vrij, Stefano Mauri and Felipe Anderson are all still out while the likes of Keita Balde, the tricky 19-year-old from Barcelona, and Danilo Cataldi, a 20-year-old with potential in midfield, will need time to express themselves.

Djordjevic is struggling to fill the void
Of course, with attacking talent on the sidelines now is the time for the Serbia forward, Filip Djordjevic, to rediscover the form that helped him score a hat-trick against Palermo in September. Still, against Napoli he failed to read any of Candreva’s crosses – despite their variety – and didn’t create any chances himself, stretching his barren run to just two goals in 12 appearances. Elsewhere Marco Parlo headed against the bar, while Balde and Luis Cavanda missed chances that will haunt them in their sleep.

By Alistair Hendrie (January 2015)



UFC Poland: Jimi Manuwa aims to keeps it standing against Jan Blachowicz

Jimi Manuwa says he is back to full fitness and raring to go ahead of his UFC Fight Night: Krakow co-main event against Jan Blachowicz on April 11.

The British light-heavyweight was meant to face Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua in November but pulled out because of a stress fracture to his fourth metatarsal.

Speaking to Mirror Fighting, Manuwa said, “I had some time off with my family and got straight back into training as soon as I could. It was the first time I’ve had to pull out of a fight and it was the right decision for my team to make.

“At the time the metatarsal was literally about to break but I was training on it every day. I’d never had this injury before so I didn’t know anything about it. I could have gone into the fight with a broken foot but kicking is one of my strongest weapons.”

The 35-year-old has been rebuilding at Allstars MMA in Stockholm, Sweden, where he trains with Alexander Gustafsson who handed him his first loss in March 2014.

“I’m comfortable there,” said Manuwa. “Everything’s so organised and (coach) Andreas Michael gives you so much confidence and inspiration. He’s a great man and a great person. I’ve always been friendly with Alex as well – before, during and after our fight.

“We remain friends and we want to help each other get better – that’s what it’s all about. He’s a cool guy, very relaxed and friendly like myself. We’re not loud, aggressive, out-there people. We get on fine without talking much.”

So after Gustafsson smashed Manuwa inside a round a year ago, has the Englishman changed how he thinks about the sport?

“Not really. I am who I am and I tune my training to the fighter I am. I don’t think I could change anything now. How I fight is what got me into the UFC in the first place.”

And the 205lbs division is now one of the most exciting in the UFC, with Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson tearing through Gustafsson in two minutes and 15 seconds in January.

After returning to the UFC following a two-year hiatus - also making the huge jump from welterweight to light-heavyweight - Johnson will now face 205lbs champion Jon Jones at UFC 187 on May 23.

“It’s one of those fights I can’t call,” admitted Manuwa. “Johnson is really explosive around rounds one and two but if Jones survives that he can come into the fight. Jones knows what he’s good at and how he likes to fight.

“He’s very good at making the fight his own fight and that’s why he’s got the belt. I think he’ll move up to heavyweight and beat most of the guys there too.”

But before the Croydon ace can think any further about the champion, he will have to cut down Blachowicz, a tough Polish fighter who avenged a defeat to Rameau Sokoudjou in 2011 to grab the KSW title.

The Poznan native, 31, made his UFC debut last October when he dismantled Ilir Latifi with a savage kick to the body in the first round.

“It was impressive,” said Manuwa. “He’s a great fighter but he’ll be shooting for the takedown. I like all styles of MMA, my first classes in the sport were BJJ but I prefer to stand up. I’ll keep the fight on the feet because it’s an easier and quicker way to finish the fight than by submission.”

By Alistair Hendrie (The Mirror)

Chris Eubank Jr "on warpath" for Billy Joe Saunders rematch

Chris Eubank Jr may have lost his undefeated record last year but the Brighton man believes he has learned his lessons ahead of his February 28 battle with Dmitry Chudinov at the O2 Arena, London.

The middleweight star was edged out on the scorecards in November by Billy Joe Saunders despite tearing into his rival during the final three rounds.

“Losing is a part of the sport and I’m over it,” said Eubank Jr. “That fight was a big learning experience for me. I should have pressed earlier and started how I finished. I’m not saying it was a mistake because during the fight it felt like it was neck and neck but I’ve learned lessons which I plan to build on, on February 28.

The 25-year-old's father Chris Eubank Sr, who created controversy by replacing Ronnie Davies as his son’s lead cornerman, added: “He started late against Saunders and that’s how the judges saw it. That’s boxing. I do believe that everything I’ve said about Chris is still on track. Simply put, we follow strategy or learn the hard way. His ability is there for all to see.”

The bad blood between Saunders and his domestic foe still simmers while Eubank Jr confessed he is already calling for a rematch.
 “It’s definitely something we’re looking forward to,” he admitted. “Will he take a rematch though? I don’t think so. He walked away from our first fight with a lot of question marks whereas I walked away thinking, yeah, I can do this. It was the hardest night of his career.

“I respect every man who steps through the ropes but Billy’s not a respectful character because of the things he says and the things he does. He hasn’t apologised for that and I’d love the rematch; there’s nothing I want more. I’ve got a lot of pride and that loss is something I want to put right.”

First of all he’ll have to overcome WBA interim champion Chudinov, a come-forward yet untested Russian with a record of 14-0-2.

“I’m on the warpath now and there’s no messing about. I’m ready to jump into it with the top fighters and show what I can do. For Saunders I didn’t have the correct sparring but now, if I need to bring fighters over or travel, we’ll have to do that.

“This time for Chudinov I’m going to do everything perfectly. This guy isn’t Saunders; he’s not a slick southpaw who I’ll have to figure out. I know what he’s going to do. He’ll come to fight but he won’t last long and I’ll have too much for him on the night.”

By Alistair Hendrie (The Mirror)

Sunday, 28 December 2014

5 things we learned from Newcastle v Everton

Newcastle eased the pressure on manager Alan Pardew on Sunday with a 3-2 victory over Everton that ended a four-match losing streak in all competitions.
With Moussa Sissoko and Cheick Tiote excellent in midfield Newcastle dominated the second half but should be thankful the visitors did not add to Kevin Mirallas’s late strike.

Still, should Papiss Cisse have been sent off? And where do Everton go now with a growing injury list? Let’s take a look at what we learned.

Newcastle start slowly and peak late once more

19 matches into the season Newcastle still haven’t scored in the first half an hour of a Premier League match. Surely this is the kind of statistic that will come back to haunt the Geordies. Still, once Cisse cancelled out Arouna Kone’s opener - his first goal since joining Everton in August 2013 - a clever finish from Ayoze Perez and a chip from Jack Colback put Newcastle ahead in the second half. Despite Mirallas making it 3-2 the hosts still created chances through Perez and Sissoko, while they have now scored 62% of their league goals in the last 30 minutes of play.

Cisse was lucky to stay on the pitch

The Senegal international was a nuisance all match, dropping deep to provide flick-ons and also equalising with an acrobatic half-volley after Michael Williamson returned a cross from the right. Still, he should have been sent off when he appeared to elbow Seamus Coleman in Everton’s penalty area. Referee Craig Pawson, who couldn’t have missed the incident, took no action but the Football Association could punish the forward even if Pawson doesn’t mention the event in his post-match report.

Pardew can take heart from Rolls-Royce midfield

Unruly strikers aside, Pardew will take a lot of pride from his midfielders’ performances. The former Crystal Palace player started as a leading candidate to take up the manager’s spot at Selhurst Park but if he stays in the north-east, Sissoko will be crucial to Pardew’s revival. The French international’s through-balls set alarm bells ringing all match and he now boasts a 79% pass completion rate over the course of the season. Tiote was also productive with two assists, while the ever-improving Colback put his side in front like a predatory centre-forward, finishing with the outside of his boot.

Martinez needs fringe players to improve – and quickly

With seven changes made from Friday’s 1-0 reverse to Stoke, when goalkeeper Tim Howard and centre-back Phil Jagielka both went off injured, it was always going to be a tough ask for Roberto Martinez’s Everton side. Joel Robles in goal failed to command his area at corners while left-back Luke Garbatt, at 21-years-old making his first Premier League appearance, played with adventure despite losing the ball on occasion.  Because of other long-term absentees such as Steven Pienarr, these players need to step up particularly if Martinez keeps his job throughout the January transfer window.

Ross Barkley is still maturing as a player

As if five losses in seven league games wasn’t bad enough, the Everton boss has also been criticised recently for playing Ross Barkley on the wing, stifling his ability to open pockets of space and thread balls through. The 21-year-old thrives when driving from the centre-circle but has struggled this season after returning from a disappointing World Cup with England. Barkley sliced a clearance into Colback’s path for Newcastle’s second and he was overrun in midfield by the combative Sissoko. It’s times like these when Martinez needs his big players, especially Barkley, firing on all cylinders.
By Alistair Hendrie


Saturday, 27 December 2014

UFC Fight Night London: A pimetime slot is exactly what the UFC needs

Channel 5’s decision to show live coverage of UFC Fight Night London on Saturday is a brave roll of the dice, but it’s a necessary move to grow the profile of MMA

The broadcaster will screen the show, headlined by Croydon’s Jimi Manuwa against Stockholm’s Alexander Gustafsson, from 9-11pm in a landmark moment for the UFC – this is the promotion’s first show to air live on free-to-view television in the UK. It's an interesting proposition.

You only need to look at Channel 5's track record in combat sports, particularly with heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, who drew 1,500,000 viewers for his war with Steve Cunningham in April 2013.

It was perhaps that exposure that got the Manchester slugger a meeting with David Haye before “The Hayemaker” twice pulled out due to injuries .

Meanwhile, it’s a proven theory that fight sports go hand-in-hand with a terrestrial, primetime Saturday audience. Remember the early 90s when ITV, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank became compulsive family viewing?

That kind of platform is important to promote MMA further, hopefully to the point where our world-class talent – the likes of Manuwa and London’s Brad Pickett (both on Saturday’s card) – can grace the back pages.

Garry Cook, UFC executive vice-president and EMEA managing director, told me this week: “I’ve got to give it to Channel 5, they came to us and said: “We think there’s a place for boxing or UFC on a Saturday night. Although it’s new territory for both of us, we’re going to work hard and make it work.

“It needs to be a partnership though: if Channel 5 gets great ratings, that’s a success for them. But if they also tell the fighters’ stories, give it some context and provide education, that’s a success for us too.”

Cook makes a good point about that golden Saturday slot. Original dramas dominate Saturday night’s terrestrial viewing, while ITV are sticking with The Jonathan Ross Show for now.

And with Sky Sports offering a La Liga game between lowly Granada and Villarreal as an alternative to the UFC, the core 18-34 audience may well be on the sofa cheering for Brit star Manuwa.

Still, with any business plan, there are always stumbling blocks. Is the wider general public ready for mixed martial arts?

Think back to England’s last UFC showcase in October – yes, it was a great event, but what might happen if Gustafsson-Manuwa ends as a freak no-contest like Ross Pearson-Melvin Guillard?

With a broader audience watching – many of whom may be first-time viewers - you would hope the evening avoids that kind of setback.

But Cook countered: “Having been around sport for 25 years, the thing I love is its unpredictability. That kind of thing provides both fear and excitement and MMA in particular is so unpredictable; in combat sports it can go either way and that’s what makes it great.

“With the Channel 5 deal we want to bring the energy and excitement from the event to the audience at home. Paul Dunthorne [Chief Operating Officer at Channel 5] and his team have been magnificent and they agree that it’s not just about staging the broadcasts; it’s about educating the general public about the sport.

“London’s always been a big market for us and we always feel it’s important to come back to the main cities, the big arenas... we want to keep that consistency and then the audience will grow. And with our Channel 5 link-up, lo and behold, hopefully we’ll have over a million viewers on Saturday night.”

By Alistair Hendrie. Originally posted on

UFC 181: Lawler-MacDonald and five fights to make after a big weekend

Robbie Lawler set the record straight on Saturday by outpointing Johny Hendricks at UFC 181 to take the welterweight title, avenging his earlier loss to 'Big Rigg' in their March war.

'Ruthless' forced the pace early – perhaps trying to catch the judges’ attention – before a late rally of punches and front kicks helped him win by scores of 49-46 and 48-47 against 47-48.

Meanwhile, as Anthony Pettis submitted Gilbert Melendez with a guillotine choke in round two of their lightweight title fight, let’s take a look at six potential scraps which could happen after another weekend of action.

Robbie Lawler v Rory MacDonald

It’s incredible to think that, at 25, Rory MacDonald has already built a 9-2 record in the Octagon.

Now that his Tristar MMA team-mate Georges St. Pierre is out of the picture, it’s about time Rory got a title shot.

The British Columbia native lost to Lawler on the cards last year, but MacDonald has since dominated Tarec Saffiedine and Tyron Woodley, while his leg kicks are arguably the best in the 170lbs division.

Johny Hendricks v Tarec Saffiedine/Matt Brown

It’s incredible to think that, at 25, Rory MacDonald has already built a 9-2 record in the Octagon.

Now that his Tristar MMA team-mate Georges St. Pierre is out of the picture, it’s about time Rory got a title shot.

The British Columbia native lost to Lawler on the cards last year, but MacDonald has since dominated Tarec Saffiedine and Tyron Woodley, while his leg kicks are arguably the best in the 170lbs division.

Anthony Pettis v Khabib Nurmagomedov

After defeating Melendez, Donald Cerrone and Benson Henderson (twice), Pettis stands as the best lightweight on earth by quite some way.

However, Nurmagomedov rests at 5-0 in the UFC after displaying an explosive blend of throws, chokes and judo prowess. In his May 2013 decision over Abel Trujillo he completed 21 takedowns, while he recently told MMA Fighting that Pettis is “scared” to fight him.

'Showtime' told the same site he’d “never heard of” the Russian. Nice.

Eddie Alvarez v Gilbert Melendez

Staying on the 155bs scene, there are plenty of competitors ranked between Melendez, the No. 1 contender, and Eddie Alvarez, now standing at No. 11.

Now that both are finally competing on the biggest stage of them all – the UFC – this match-up could happen at the top half of a marquee card in 2015. Expect toe-to-toe action if these fan-favourites meet.

Tony Ferguson v Jim Miller

Tony Ferguson is another man making waves in the lightweight division.

At UFC 181 he stormed back in round two and submitted Trujillo – no mean feat – with a patient, well-executed rear naked choke.

Jim Miller is available and waiting, so that bout would make sense. The New Jersey fighter is versatile with unbreakable cardio, but at 5 foot 8 could he make room for his own strikes against the rangy, 6 foot Ferguson?

Travis Browne v Mark Hunt

Heavyweight 'Hapa' Browne returned to form on Saturday by stopping Brendan Schaub with punches from back mount in round one.

After breaking his left hand in defeat to Fabricio Werdum in April - also hurting his ribs and nose – the Glendale Fighting Club man cut off the cage with intent, using his reach and length to punish Schaub.

How about a battle with rejuvenated 40-year-old Hunt? Strikers’ paradise indeed.

By Alistair Hendrie

Originally posted on

Frampton ready to take the IBF super-bantamweight title from Kiko Martinez

Carl Frampton is eager to settle a score with Leo Santa Cruz as he prepares for his first world title challenge, on Saturday in Belfast, against IBF super bantamweight champion Kiko Martinez.

After defeating Martinez in 2013 , Frampton was all set for a clash with Santa Cruz until the WBC champion’s promoters, Golden Boy, turned on the silent treatment, “His team didn’t want it – it’s that simple,” said Frampton, deep in training at McGuigan’s Gym in Battersea.

“After I won my WBC eliminator against Hugo Cazares [by second round knockout in April] I think it spooked them a bit. Before that they were really keen and my manager Barry McGuigan was in talks with some very powerful people. 
But after I fought Cazares they turned to radio silence. Boxing is full of politics but Golden Boy is a huge company with a lot of influence so they could have taken the fight if they really wanted it.”

Frampton, 27, claimed he was “shocked” when Martinez accepted a rematch, especially considering how he punished the Spaniard over nine rounds to take his European title in February 2013.

“Although I’m surprised I’m very happy he’s taken the fight,” he said. “There’s a lot of history there and in terms of the Belfast public and the demand, this is a much bigger fight than Santa Cruz.
Martinez said he had some personal problems when we met before but to be honest, he would say that: he has to have some excuse. I read that he’s clinging on to how he perforated my eardrum in round four. I boxed on for five rounds after that and knocked him out, so if he thinks he can hurt me he’s wrong.”
The man from Tigers Bay added, “I plan on hitting him hard in the first few rounds and from then on he’ll remember what happened last time, because I hurt him a few times and then he was stopped. I’m assuming and thinking this is going to be a tough fight but it’s one I’ve prepared for.”

Still, Martinez has since regrouped to win the IBF title from Johnathan Gonzalez, going on to dominate Jeffery Mathebula and Hozumi Hasegawa in his first defences. 
And while the Alicante man famously smashed Bernard Dunne inside a round in Dublin in 2007, it will be a tough ask for him to repeat the trick in front of 16,000 Belfast fans at a temporary stadium in the Titanic Quarter.

“I keep trying to imagine what it’s going to look like,” said Frampton. “I just think it’s going to look unbelievable. It’s a very historic setting with the slip where the Titanic was built and you can actually see it from my old house in Tigers Bay.
“Whenever we have 9,000 fans at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena it sounds unbelievable, but with 16,000 it’s going to be even better. A lot of people have worked hard to make this happen – the government have put their hands in their pockets too, so it’s very humbling.”
With that kind of pressure on his shoulders, how does Frampton stay calm? Does he look to his mentor, the revered McGuigan, for advice on how to deal with such fanfare?

Ever grounded, the Northern Irishman answered, “I’m not doing anything differently than if I was working an average 9-5 job, and if people like that, I like it. Barry’s a good man and gives me advice about everything, not just dealing with pressure. I like to think I’m pretty approachable so I’d rather people in the streets speak to me than not.”
If Frampton does grab a world title at the first time of asking, perhaps the likes of Santa Cruz, British rival Scott Quigg and Cuban magician Guillermo Rigondeaux will come calling. 
“I don’t want these guys to put me on the backburner but you’ve got to carry on. Once I’ve got a world title the bigger fights will be there to make and there won’t be any stumbling blocks. The ball’s in our court once we beat Martinez.” 

By Alistair Hendrie - originally posted on